June 18, 2014
Footprints on the James
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On a recent Friday afternoon on a wide stretch of the James River in Charles City County, a class of nine Virginia Commonwealth University students assisted VCU field biologists with netting catfish – some tiny, some as big as 45 pounds – as part of a hands-on demonstration to learn how scientists gather and analyze samples of tidal river fish.
“We’re doing select sampling of catfish,” said Ryan Levering, an environmental studies major at VCU. “We learned all about them – such as when they were introduced – in your typical classroom setting, but then [we had the opportunity to] actually go out and catch them and see them in person and feel them and see how big these animals [can be]. It was cool to get some hands-on experience.”
That morning, the class heard a lecture by Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies, on fish of historic and economic importance on the James River. And, following the catfish sampling, the class toured the nearby Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility working to restore populations of species such as American shad, river herring, striped bass and freshwater mussels.
Vonesh and two other professors, Brian Daugherity, Ph.D., a professor in VCU’s Department of History, and Dan Carr, a VCU biology professor, are co-teaching a new course at VCU called “Footprints on the James,” which aims to explore the history and biology of the James River watershed.
As part of the four-week course, the nine students from across VCU are traveling a roughly 150-mile section of the James River via sea kayak, canoe, raft, bateau and backpacking, camping out along the way.
“The focus here is how has the river shaped us? How have we shaped the river? We’re interested in that back and forth between culture and the watershed,” Vonesh said. “The James River watershed is just an example of this broader, compelling important question of the day – how are we shaping our environment? How are we impacting it?”
Intersection of history and biology
To explore the river’s history, the class is visiting historic sites such as Jamestown Settlement; Colonial Williamsburg; Tuckahoe Plantation, Thomas Jefferson’s boyhood home; Henricus Historical Park; Shirley Plantation; Fort Darling at Drewry’s Bluff, which played a key role in the Civil War defense of Richmond; and more modern sites such as Surry Power Station, a nuclear power plant in Surry County.
“We’re covering Native Americans, the Colonial period, antebellum era, Civil War, and into the 20th century,” said Daugherity, who teaches Virginia history.
He added that the students will gain a deeper understanding of the history of the James – and of Virginia – by experiencing the sites along the expedition.
“Being on the river gives them a more concrete sense of how the history has unfolded and how the river has shaped human settlement, and vice versa,” Daugherity said. “Actually being at the sites themselves will help them better understand the history and also help them to remember the history.”
The river, he added, was – and continues to be – a central part of the history, life and economy of Virginia.
“If you’re going to study Virginia history, you’re going to have to study the James River,” he said. “This river was essential to the settlement of the new world. It was the transportation route for centuries. It’s still essential. It’s critical to human survival here in Central Virginia.”
On the biology side, the class is conducting numerous hands-on activities, including taking water quality samples, analyzing soil profiles, snorkeling to count fish populations, and learning to identify and assess fish, birds, insects and plant life.
“How has the biology or the geography of a river shaped the people from pre-colonial to modern times? How have people in turn shaped the river?” Vonesh said.
“Footprints on the James,” Vonesh said, is not simply a history class being taught alongside a biology class. Rather, it lies at the “sweet spot” of the intersection of the two disciplines, with history informing the biology and biology informing the history, he said.
“Sometimes the only evidence we have to address important biological questions is historical, like the use of scutes excavated from a well at Jamestown to reconstruct what populations of endangered Atlantic sturgeon looked like in pre-colonial times,” Vonesh said. “Sometimes biological evidence can provide critical insight into important historical events, like evidence of extreme drought during the Jamestown ‘starving time’ recorded in the rings of tidewater trees and the discarded shells of oysters they ate.
“It’s better biology through history, better history through biology,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine a better place to explore this intersection than the James River watershed.”
Along with the history and biology components of the course, the students are also gaining valuable outdoors experience with advanced camping, canoeing and kayaking, and outdoor living skills, as well as no-trace camping.
“I want to show these students that, although this seems like a scary, long trip, if you take it a day at a time and you take all the pieces – you learn how to cook, you learn how to sleep, you learn how to put up a campsite, how to use the boat – if you put all those pieces together, you’ll have learned something really great,” Carr said. “You’ll have learned that you accomplished your goals.
“I want these kids to leave the course with a much better sense of what they are capable of achieving,” he added.
VCU’s Outdoor Adventure Program is collaborating with the biology and history departments to organize the course, and is providing a variety of equipment – such as boats, personal flotation devices, tents and backpacking gear – as well as food, transport, and a dozen student trip leaders from the Student Outdoor Leadership Program.
“Twelve of our trip leaders spent spring break paddling the same section of the James that [we are] using for the course,” said Joey Parent, assistant director of the Outdoor Adventure Program. “The spring break trip was the culmination of a six-month leadership course that the OAP offers each year. The trip went really smoothly and is a great venue for developing leadership abilities, as well as learning about the history and biology of Central Virginia.”
By the end of the course, Parent said, the students should be able to navigate the James River watershed on their own using only human power, live in the outdoors for an extended period of time, and be able to do so in a manner that does not negatively impact the river.
“Ultimately, I would like to see everyone — the students, trip leaders and faculty — leave the expedition with a newfound appreciation for James River watershed,” he said. “I grew up paddling the James River and its tributaries. This river has had a huge impact on my life. I hope everyone involved in the course can experience that too.”
“An overload of biodiversity”
As part of the course, students spent a week at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, a field station along the James River in Charles City County that is devoted to environmental research, teaching and public service.
During a break at the Rice Rivers Center, Lelia Overton, a history major from Virginia Beach, said she wanted to take part in the course because it combined her love of history with the chance to learn more about biology and natural history.
“I’ve always had a fascination with the sciences and the outdoors, so this was a great opportunity to incorporate my skills as a budding historian, as well as kind of dabble in the biology,” she said.
Overton’s favorite part of the expedition, she said, was seeing the array of wildlife on the river.
“This experience has been great … You get to see bald eagles, herons, different kinds of fish,” she said. “It’s just been an overload of biodiversity and it’s been really cool to check out.”
Martin Edwards, a biology major from Charlottesville, is an avid outdoorsman, so he was naturally interested in the course when he first heard about it last winter.
“This is the kind of stuff I do for fun anyways. I love the outdoors,” he said. “I’m interested in conservation biology, ecology. I'm not much for sitting under fluorescent lights.”
Edwards said he is enjoying the cross-disciplinary aspect of the course, as it combines field research with the historical record, thereby showing how the James River has changed over time.
“I enjoy that aspect because I’m interested in conservation,” he said. “It’s a pressing issue and I like to be involved.”
I’m interested in conservation biology, ecology. I’m not much for sitting under fluorescent lights.
Maya Walters, a history major from Newport News, said the course has given her a chance to gain more outdoors experience while also learning about natural history in the field.
“To be able to come out here and be able to study and explore these spots where the Native Americans were, or where there was a Civil War battle, has been very, very exciting to me,” she said. “It’s almost overwhelming to be out in the field as a history major because you typically have your nose in the books, reading. But it’s really great to be able to have field experience as a history major.”
During the trip, the students are also blogging about their experiences.
In one blog entry, for example, Overton describes paddling down the James to visit Henricus Historical Park – which re-creates 17th-century life in the second successful English settlement in North America – and then camping out at Presquile National Wildlife Refuge.
“I took many pictures of the Arum plant, Peltandra virginica, a wetland plant that looks quite like an elephant-ear plant,” she wrote. “My fellow student, Taylor, a biology major, found a shark’s tooth in the beach’s mud with ease. That evening, we attended a lecture by biology graduate student Nick Moy on bird migration, behavior and ecological niches followed by a flashing terrestrial constellation of lightning bugs.”
Linking the history and biology of the James River has been easy, Daugherity said.
“It’s clear that humans have impacted the river dramatically over the years, in some rather disturbing ways,” he said. “It’s equally clear that humans are reliant on the river, humans have been shaped by the river, and that the river is integrally linked to our future.”
Experts from across Virginia
A key component of Footprints on the James has been its numerous guest speakers – including many VCU experts – who have met up with the class along the trip.
One guest speaker, Karenne Wood, director of the Virginia Indian Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and a member of the Monacan Indian Nation, spoke to the class about Virginia Indian tribes and the importance of the river to tribal culture.
Ryan Smith, associate professor of history at VCU, spoke at the Rice Rivers Center about the role of religion in Virginia history. And Sarah Meacham, also associate professor of history at VCU, met up with the class and lectured on daily life in Colonial Virginia before leading the group on a walking tour of Colonial Williamsburg.
Yet another, David Lewes, project manager at the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research, lectured on archaeology as a historical tool and discussed a number of important archeological projects in Virginia.
The class has also heard impromptu lectures, such as when a pair of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries officers described their work to the students while they all took shelter inside the Rice Rivers Center amid a violent hail storm, or when ornithologist Brian Watts stopped in to speak to the group about osprey and bald eagle research.
The day before the expedition began, Ann Woodlief, author of “In River Time: The Way of the James” and an emerita associate professor of English at VCU, visited the class to discuss her book, which explores the natural and human history of the James River and was required pre-trip reading for the course.
Woodlief said that when she was researching the book, which was published in 1985, she found that one can only really learn about the James River by experiencing it firsthand.
I can’t imagine a situation in which you would learn more.
“Every time I went to the river, I discovered things when I was there, whether it was overnight or just for an afternoon,” she said. “Once you really focus on the questions of: What is this river really like? What is a river? What is the life in it? I always learned something new and I always got so many stories from that. So I think [the students] will see different aspects of the river on their trip. I can’t imagine a situation in which you would learn more.”
Woodlief praised the idea behind “Footprints on the James,” calling the course an excellent example of learning from Virginia’s "natural community."
“It's a difficult course to do because it has to be interdisciplinary,” she said, “but that's what makes it wonderful.”
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As the “Footprints on the James” class traveled down the James River, the professors and students documented their activities on blogs and social media, such as Instagram. Here are a few photos shot by the class. To see more, check out the class Instagram feed at http://instagram.com/
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